There’s something in the air in Allan Gardens, a downtown Toronto park, on Thursdays around lunchtime. It’s a rich, smoky scent that wafts from a spot near the centre of the park, not far from the front of the striking Victorian-style conservatory for which the park is known.
Here, every week—rain, snow or shine—you’ll find a circle of people gathered around the weathered concrete base of a defunct fountain, on which has been draped a blanket, and, on top of that, a half-conch bearing the source of the smoke: a tuft of smouldering sage and tobacco, sacred medicines for cleansing and healing to many of North America’s Indigenous peoples. The people will be singing and drumming traditional Indigenous songs, opening up about what’s been going on in their lives, praying and, at the end of the gathering, sharing a meal together.
This is the Neechi Sharing Circle, one of the recipients of a $15,000 grant this year from the Anglican Healing Fund. Its purpose, organizers say, is to offer community to Indigenous people who live near or, in some cases, in the park, and are especially marginalized and isolated. Many of them are survivors of the Indian Residential School system or the Sixties Scoop.
“Many people who use drugs, do sex work, or identify as LGBTQ find barriers against their participation in ceremony and community life due to stigma,” according to the Rev. Leigh Kern, coordinator of Indigenous ministries and reconciliation animator for the diocese of Toronto and one of the circle’s first members.
“Those people are often excluded from circles of community, but like all of us, they need healing and support,” Kern says.
That the circle gathers outside in Allan Gardens is one of its most important aspects, organizers say. The people they’re trying to reach out to tend not to take part in other Indigenous ceremonies, either because of the travel involved or because they’re held indoors, at places where they fear they’ll be told to leave if they show up under the influence of drugs or alcohol. But Neechi means “my friend” in Ojibway, says Laverne Malcolm, who leads the opening prayers, and no one is turned away from the circle. An important feature of the circle is its non-judgmental approach: regardless of whether people are sober or intoxicated, they’re allowed to participate.
“We don’t see ourselves as better than anyone who’s using drugs; we don’t feel that we’re better than anyone who’s experiencing poverty,” says Cathy Calfchild, a participant known for, among other things, the massive pots of chili she cooks for the circle after returning home from her shift at work the previous night. “We’ve all either been there ourselves, or we’ve been afflicted with family members who have been.”
Organizers say the circle’s radical openness to participation has helped it grow under its own steam. A late February gathering that the Anglican Journal was invited to witness began with only about a dozen people, but by the end that number had about doubled, despite the damp late-winter chill. A fringe of spectators, a few of them sipping from cans of beer, gradually gathered around the circle.
Circle members were quick to invite onlookers to smudge. Often they accepted, drawing the smoke toward their faces with eyes closed, seeming absorbed in the simple act.
The ceremony began with members of the circle taking turns sharing things about themselves: concerns, tragedies and triumphs. A woman announced she was coming up to her one-year anniversary of sobriety, to whoops and claps from fellow circle members. They offered prayers to the creator.
Suddenly, a woman making her way through the park stepped into the circle and announced that she had demons and pain. She spoke about the things in her life that had been causing her suffering. Everyone listened, and she was offered a sweet grass smudge, which she accepted.
“She needed to release that … so we were just like, ‘Yes, OK, go ahead, do it,’” Malcolm told me afterward. “That’s community, right? You can’t turn them away.”
Some participants say the ceremony has a beneficial effect on them they can’t entirely put to words.
“When you hit the drum, it feels awesome—you feel that spirituality,” said a young man who identified himself to me as Delbert. “I don’t know how to explain it, but you can feel it.”
“It’s drumming for spirit,” added his friend Jesse. Indigenous people have birthing ceremonies for their drums when they make them, he said, and a new drum is treated like a child because it’s believed to possess a spirit. “It’s not just to make noise.”
Deep pain and death aren’t strangers to the Neechi Sharing Circle. The overdose crisis, Kern says, has claimed the lives of many of its participants, and continues to.
“We’ve lost a lot of community members,” she told me after the ceremony had ended. “Almost every week we have a death.”
At Kern’s words, a middle-aged man in a wheelchair who had been watching but not participating in the circle told us that his son had died of a fentanyl overdose only two weeks earlier. They had had a ceremonial funeral for him at which he carried his son’s ashes.
He never knew they would be so heavy, he said.
When asked if attending the circle helped him, the man replied, “Of course. It gives you a heartbeat, you know?”
The Neechi Sharing Circle was started in the late summer of 2017 by Floyd Crowshoe, Les Harper, Laverne Malcolm and Wanda Whitebird, with support from the Prisoners HIV/AIDS Support Action Network (PASAN), a health and harm reduction organization for prisoners. The initial financing provided by PASAN funded the circle for eight weeks. Additional funding would come and go, with various community members and organizations covering food costs or supplying the sweet grass when needed.
Money from the Healing Fund is now covering these costs as well as honoraria for circle elders, knowledge keepers and their helpers, and other items.
Martha Many Grey Horses, coordinator of the Anglican Healing Fund, says both she and the committee that decides on grants liked a number of things about the Neechi Sharing Circle, including the fact that it is land-based (held outdoors regardless of the weather, as per Indigenous tradition), its grassroots origins, the fact that it attracts people of all ages, its inclusiveness and the way it fosters the use of Indigenous languages.
Calfchild says she hopes the program will also have an impact beyond the circle itself, in opening the hearts of people in the wider community.
“If we keep doing things like these circles, then people in the area will see that there’s more to us than just being a drunk in the park or whatever…that everyone is still a human being, that we still are spiritual beings and we’re all worthy of love, and we all have that connection to nature and to God or to spirit,” she says.
“There’s more to us than just what they think that they see.”